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Secession in Michigan

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Tags Political Theory

01/07/2003Adam Young

On Tuesday, December 17, 2002, Arenac Township and Omer City, Michigan held a joint referendum brought about by the actions of one woman, Cheryl Perry. The Perrys simply no longer wished to be looted by the Omer municipal government, even if it was only $41.62 a year.

Omer bills itself as the Onion Capital of the World, although no one seems to know why. Founded about 140 years ago as Homer, the towns name was changed to Omer when the residents discovered there already was a Homer, Michigan. 

"It's a quiet little town," said Susan Hegenauer, the Omer city clerk. "We aren't looking for fame. In fact, we don't like it." 

Omer entered the national spotlight, with ABC News, the Chicago Tribune, and  the Detroit Free Press stopping by, when Cheryl Perry refused to be bullied by her "representatives" and decided to fight City Hall. It all began when the Omer city government promised to extend the existing water line to connect the new home the Perrys were building, but halfway through construction, the government changed its tune, claiming the city government's coffers were bare and it couldn't afford the pipeline extension. 

"We were stunned actually," recalled Cheryl Perry, "because we couldn't understand why they had told us that to begin with and then change their mind." 

The city's regime said they would be happy to extend the pipeline if the Perrys would be willing to pay for it, and at the inflated cost of all government construction, one presumes. Apparently, this "offer" didn't appeal to the Perrys, who instead dug their own well at a cost to themselves and now have all the water they need.

What galls the Perrys, especially Cheryl Perry, is that although their house lies about two football fields away from the terminus of Omer's water line and they were told there was no chance the city will provide water to the Perrys' new home, Omer is still levying taxes on the Perrys for providing water!—a tax bill for service the Perry's weren't even getting.

In an interview Cheryl Perry had a very common sense reaction to this action by Omer's governmental bureaucracy: "I don't feel I should have to pay because I don't get the water."

If only it were true. In a just world, it would be, but the city government of Omer is not interested in justice. In response to repeated attempts by Cheryl Perry to get the tax bill lifted, "city hall" argued that since her address is in Omer, she has to pay the taxes of Omer, regardless of what tax-funded services she may or may not receive. 

Let a business try that excuse with any of its products or services and not expect to hear denunciations and suffer the loss of business and incur the likelihood of lawsuits and regulatory persecution. But situations like this are a day-in-the-life of governments everywhere, which simply believe they can get away with just about anything. 

When petitioning one's government for redress of grievances proved to be a farce, Cheryl Perry turned the tables on the bureaucrats: if she had to pay the tax because she lived in Omer, she would secede from Omer and take her new house and land with her. Cheryl Perry petitioned the city government to secede from Omer and join neighboring Arenac Township, a process covered by Michigan State law, which requires a local referendum. So, on December 17, both Arenac Township and Omer held a contest at the ballot box—an "election" over only one issue: whether to allow the Perrys to leave Omer's jurisdiction without actually moving.

"I can't see anyone saying, no, they don't want us," Cheryl Perry said before the vote.

The Omer city clerk, Susan Hegenauer, said about the Perrys, "I can sympathize with them. I probably would want it [the water service] too, but I wouldn't make a big thing about it." 

Arenac Township Clerk Elaine Pula thought some sort of compromise would eventually be worked out. "I kind of thought the city of Omer and our township would get together and, you know, come up with something to save the expense."

To hold the vote Omer and Arenac Township spent $2,000 which included printing enough ballots for all 1,000 potential voters and hiring workers to man the voting places from 7am to 8pm, even though most people figured around 50 people would actually turn up to vote, if that. 

After the polls closed Cheryl Perry got the outcome she wanted. Out of a total vote tally of 140, with 82 votes Yes and 58 miserable voters voting No, the Perrys had successfully seceded from Omer and Omer's taxman.

While conservatives and Republicans might consider Cheryl Perry's odyssey as a classic example of American ideals in practice, libertarians should be more skeptical. Conservatives' might take to heart this story as a tale of the little guy fighting—and beating—City Hall, and might even see this as something following in the footsteps of the Patriots of 1776, and perhaps even as a victory for democracy, while leftists in general are unlikely to welcome this rebellion against arbitrary taxation no matter how democratic the process.

However, the concern for libertarians should be the waste in time, money and lost opportunities entailed by having your income and other property perpetually at the mercy of the vote of your neighbors. Consequently we should see this as yet another reason to not only fight City Hall, but to abolish it, because even if conservatives would herald it a success, it would only be because she won, but what if she lost? The Perrys would have been forced to relinquish some of their property year after year because their neighbors agreed that they should.

"I wish we didn't have to go through this whole thing," Cheryl Perry told ABC News. "It's been pretty time-consuming for us." 

And even though Cheryl Perry won her referendum and thus saved the extorted costs of the annual water levy, how much did she lose in lost opportunities as well as her share of the actual costs that she and others were forced to incur to operate the referendums? An additional cost is the social cost incurred by the Perrys whose neighbors grew to resent both the Perry's themselves and the attention they brought to their town.

And all of these costs were incurred because some bureaucrat lacked the everyday "future-sightedness" that entrepreneurs display, but had the power to externalize all the costs of their stubbornness and Napoleonic-lust for control by refusing simple common sense justice to the Perrys. The Perrys were right: justice and the right not to be coerced cannot be separated.


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